Doug Johnstone’s The Shape Between Us has an alien land in Scotland, adding to the large number of alien landings whose story is shaped by where they land, and who finds them.
ET lands in Modesto California, since it is a story about Spielberg’s childhood. Superman in Smallville, Kansas, for his Jewish creators wanted him to be an immigrant but raised by an all American family.
I have often mused on how Pilot, Cory’s mother, might have landed somewhere else, and the infinite stories that flowed from that. To write is to choose.
Contains mild spoilers for Our Child of The Stars and Our Child of Two Worlds – spelling out some things not spelled out before.
Cory’s mother, the Pilot, flies Forager Ship Four towards a lush world of green and blue and white. A world of war, a world of summer and winter. Her son Little Blue Frog is unconscious, and her best friend and her child are already dead. Her body is wracked with pain, she cannot shake off the pain from the wounds of so many deaths. She knows she is alone dying.
Behind her, the huge colony ship tries a desperate move. It launches one of its engines into the swarm of alien machines and detonates it…
A swarm of murderous alien machines heads for Earth, dragging a meteor as a shield. What havoc it could wreak… Can she, dare she, destroy them as they fall?
This is a primitive planet, gripped by the psychosis that violence is an appropriate response to feeling beings. She may need to hide. Where on that world does she land…?
In the beginning, was a small New England town. The characters were American, except for the small purple boy with a heart of gold and a dreadful secret. His adoptive mother named him Cory. The characters and the setting existed before there was thought of anything as fancy as a book or two. I had a short story that obeyed Aristotle’s unities – a few characters, and the whole action in one place and on one day.
What if Pilot, dying, bereaved, not wholly rational, had landed somewhere else?
Fellow writers challenged me why I did not move the setting – set it in the country I knew from experience, perhaps the Meteor striking somewhere in Somerset with an improbable name like Abbot’s Balcony or Fester St James, with the Ship down in the Bristol Channel. A story set in the UK in 1969, where the times were a changing too. I was a little younger than Cory is, not remembering the Moon Landings but I did remember Apollo 13.
How different the flavour of the book would have been! Maybe I should have written a book of optimism and starry-eyed hope about Britain…
In part I set it in Amber Grove, New York, because that was as exotic as I felt up to – and because the characters came as liberal North-Eastern Americans and weren’t up for changing.
Where does Cory land and who finds him first?
Infinite books spread out. In many, Pilot’s gamble fails and Cory dies. Where there is no medical attention, his death is all but certain. In many, the authorities learn of the boy, and in every one of those he becomes a plaything of the powerful. How many governments would rush to tell the world and how many to keep him a secret? How many keep him tucked away as Molly feared, like a lab rat? How many see him first as a person?
Perhaps some of these stories are not too dreadful for him. Maybe even in an unkind world and for cynical reasons, those around him are still kind. If the President’s scientific advisor Dr Pfeiffer gets hold of him… he’s an ambitious and conceited Cold-Warrior but a kind and almost indulgent father. Many options will be nightmares for Cory and for me thinking of them.
Of course, Cory is not human. He has ways to flee captivity, before his powers are known. Afterwards I see little chance.
Look at an equal area map of the world. Look how much is Russia, China and their satellites. Look how much of it is Africa. Imagine Cory on the Serengeti, laughing at elephants, or staring at the blazing stars in longing… not knowing which star is home.
Imagine Cory’s first Earth winter – sledding in Alberta with other children, or skating a frozen pond in some Communist dacha… He does not like the stern men who come, but the Grandmothers are kind.
He might have learned Danish or Igbo or Minnan or one of the countless tongues of Papua New Guinea.
He could have fallen into a hot war… into ignorant or criminal hands…
Cory is a child who has known nothing but love. He will be a challenge to all of us, our systems and our hypocrisies, wherever he lands. What would Harold Wilson have done, or Pierre Trudeau? Indira Gandhi or Seretse Khama? How quickly the great powers would move on a lesser power – with threats and bribes.
Cory in Japan, Cory among the Amish, Cory bought and sold…
Alien ships tend to deposit their precious cargo in rural places – not just because there is more rural to land in, but for plot convenience. Imagine the Ship being seen over a city. Imagine trying to hide him in a Brazilian favela, or Manhattan. But even cities have possibilities.
There are some stories it is perhaps not mine to tell. I have a secret wish, where a kind and strong-minded widow with children of her own takes him in. She has a small circle who know their place, how people like them exist under a ration of tolerance, who know how to keep their mouths shut. Her son is a hothead, a loudmouth who renounced the name she gave him for an African name, but he is smart and he knows people on both sides of the law. Her older daughter is sleeping with a white slacker, connected to the seedier bits of youth culture. She would use those connections, and her church. The youngest daughter would love Cory in this story as much as she does in mine.
Somehow the wheel turns, and Cory is taken in by Diane Alexander… a teacher, a Black woman, a widow, head of one of the few Black families in Amber Grove. Molly, her crazy friend and neighbour would soon find out, and help with this bewitching child, but Diane would be Earth Mom.
Maybe when the big money comes calling, the film will follow that story instead.
An alien washes up on a Scottish beach and is recovered by a small group of humans, linked by a curious burst of unexpected strokes. Needless to say, sinister authorities get involved, and soon the alien, a telepathic five-tentacled cephalopod dubbed Sandy, is being kept safe in a dash across scenic Scotland. Who wouldn’t want a book which adds an alien to Loch Ness?
For a story like this to work for me, the humans need to be empathically drawn, the alien the right blend of vulnerable and mysterious, the thrills and reveals well-paced, and the setting more than background scenery. Johnson, an experienced writer, succeeds on all fronts, including delivering his first science fiction book.
The story is grounded in four engaging humans. Lennox is a troubled older teen from a children’s home; Ava, a heavily pregnant woman fleeing a coercive husband; Heather, a middle-aged mother contemplating suicide; and Ewan, a washed-up journalist tracking a story which draws him from reporter to participant.
Sandy is enigmatic and in some curious sense, plural. They are often recovering and powerless, but as the book progresses, who they are, where they came from, and what it all means becomes clearer. All my reviews are spoiler free, but the climax gave me the wonder and hope implicit in the premise. Those involved have been transformed in large ways and small.
The title I read is about the space between human beings and how we reach across it when thrown together by accident or a common purpose, but also, the distance between us and other thinking beings. That space is bridged in a spectacular fashion.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in return for an impartial review.
The feedback you gave was well thought out, perceptive and very useful. It was also at an appropriate level for a draft 2 as it focussed on whether the story and characters were working rather than primarily on the prose level. The pointers you did give on the latter were both enough and useful.
It reassured me that the setting, characters, and structure of the plot largely worked although you did make some important suggestions to strengthen and make more credible the key developments of the last third of the book.
(Approx 3000 words of feedback including a synopsis as I saw it, the themes, positives and negatives in a report, and copious notes in the margins.)
My recent newsletter talks about progress on the book and has a long series of short pieces about Artifical Intelligence, including asking how far the Luddites were right.
I suppose progress happens, but how why and to what benefit is a legitimate question. In the last forty years I have become much more awate that when something is invented, how and why it is used and who makes the decisions is the real issue.
An example I don’t give is genetically modified crops – there was a lot of hysteria about human safety which was not justified, leading to blanket bans in many countries – obscuring some much broader issues which had some real weight to them.
I share across various platforms but I really do need regular subscribers to the newsletter as with the changing, deteriorating, state of social media, being able to keep in touch matters to any author (except the super successful ones).
It is free, you can unsibscribe at any time, rarely more than once a month, and gives access to giveaways, tip-offs, competitions, free fiction and who knows what else.
Photo: Me being interviewed by the very smart Bryony Pearce at SciFi Weekender.
SciFiEtc Weekend SFW XIV was well organised, friendly and entertaining – and a bit bonkers. It describes itself as a SFFH weekend or a Geek Camp or a party. They were kind enough to invite me and Sarah and we had a great time. And I got to play Just A Minute with Nina Wadia.
I am struck by the difficulty of describing SFW both to people who go to other SFFH ‘conventions’ and those who lump them all together.
What they have in common is assembling people who are enthusiasts for the fantastic – people who have different tastes in books, shows, films, T-shirts, and art can still recognise a common ‘geekium’.
There are common elements
-lots of people cosplaying – wearing elaborate costumes. This makes me feel ‘I am with my people’ even if I don’t do it myself.
-talks, interviews, panel discussions, Q+As.
-different interests reflected particularly in the bigger events– film, TV, books, comics, games.
-entertainment of various forms – from folk music to rap, from standup to puppet theatre – all with some SFFH references
-guests who are working in the field, or who stay involved despite their professional life having moved on. So sometimes actors from series in the 70s 80s and 90s.
These events can be overwhelming or small and focused, they can be commercial and hardnosed, or run so much for the fans that they put off commercial and professional attendees.
SFW had the wonderful thing common to many enthusiasms that ‘everyone here treats this incredibly seriously’ but also with a firm core of ‘of course we don’t take ourselves too seriously’. In fact, never trust any group of people who aren’t happy to laugh at themselves.
It put a lot of emphasis on the entertainment – we were in a holiday camp. Guests like me in the Writer strand were treated as important but also expected to be accessible to the other attendees. For example, I was delighted to be given an hour where I went round six tables of 6-8 people and talked with them for ten minutes each.
I had an intelligent interview with Bryony Pearce (author in several genres) and Q+A – a panel discussion on fandom such as how far do fans own a topic and is that always good – numerous slots selling my books and talking about what was on people’s minds and…
And I got to Play Just A Minute with Nina Wadia. It was a riot.
So Nina Wadia was there because she was in the Sandman TV series, which is very big, and was a first timer at any SFFH event. She was lovely and hilarious – and I’m not sure she was expecting the friendly warmth and enthusiasm and minor insanity she got.
Just a Minute was played as a full contact sport – like all these things you are singing for your supper and so we tried to give the audience entertainment. Nina, briefed on the rules only as we entered the stage but well able to stage a tantrum where required, me – listened to the game as a child – and author Bryony Pearce and actor Chase Masterton who are convention regulars and utterly ruthless players but charming and delightful with it! I got plenty of laughs, which was a relief – sometimes my being funny mode doesn’t switch on. The result depended more on whose buzzer was working than anything else.
It was all great and people seemed interested. I don’t think I got snappy, although I did have to disagree with the person who thought it was ‘a shame’ no one read Asimov any more.
All the artists had the option to meet up for dinner which meant we got to know each other better.. Extrovert mode takes it out of me and a quiet night was appreciated. Shout out in particular to Anna Stephens (prolific author and fanfic advocate), and Simon Kurt Unsworth (horror writer and calm voice of reason on panels) and Benjamin his son and also a horror writer/collaborator. And Sam and David and Matt from Area 51 and everyone else who worked on making it happen.
My two novels are suitable for strong readers aged 12+.
I don’t consider them to be Young Adult Novels.
I don’t have a problem with Young Adult Novels – I have read a good number which are as good as anything not labelled YA and indeed, address issues which are not often enough addressed in mainstream work. Famously the Hunger Games attacked class, poverty, and state inspired violence glorified on TV at a time when many adult novels were on much less political themes. I might write a YA novel.
The wikipedia entry for YA genre is good but to my mind does not go far enough.
“Young adult fiction (YA) is a category of fiction written for readers from 12 to 18 years of age. While the genre is primarily targeted at adolescents, approximately half of YA readers are adults.
The subject matter and genres of YA correlate with the age and experience of the protagonist. The genres available in YA are expansive and include most of those found in adult fiction. Common themes related to YA include friendship, first love, relationships, and identity. Stories that focus on the specific challenges of youth are sometimes referred to as problem novels or coming-of-age novels.
Young adult fiction was developed to soften the transition between children’s novels and adult literature.” (In fact, ‘juvenile novels’ were a thing long before the YA term existed..)
For me, A YA novel usually has one or more teenagers as the **main** protagonist, and contains in some measure that teenager working out themselves and their relationships with world. My work covers the following main characters
Gene and Molly start the book in their twenties
Cory an alien is a child in the first book and early adolescent towards the end of the second book – although exact matching with his species is difficult.
Dr Pfeiffer, an adult well into his professional career, at least his late forties.
An alien adult.
So I don’t mind Young Adults reading my books, I hope they do. But I don’t see it is a specific YA book written at least half for that audience. Hope that makes sense.
I loved the Arthurian legends as a child, noble knights rescuing fair maidens, you could spot the baddies, and impressive magic. I mean, every time Arthur holds a feast, you know someone will ride in full of magic and menace and start things rolling. I think I read a great many in that proof of middle-class 70s childhood, Look and Learn.
The Cleaving is a story starting before Arthur’s birth and finishing after his death – it is a Matter of Britain for our own age. First it looks behind the façade of chivalry and shows what it means for the maiden, the crone, the marriageable princess, or the common soldier or farmer. I also take it as a story which without preaching, asks where the great Arthur myth has led us.
Nimue is of the hidden people, who need to keep their existence and magic from mortal view. This is a sympathetic portrait of one careful about her power, kind in her instincts, and courageous in her actions.
In this godless world, the ‘crucified god’ has great power only because mortals believe their priests. Magic is powerful, dangerous, and mysterious.
Merlin openly uses magic to advance his plans to unite Logres around a single High King, who he helps create – literally, engineering his birth, his entry to public life, and the building of his regime. Nimue observes and opposes the wrongs this can involve. Magic is the superweapon which unites then divides at a terrible price.
The Cleaving also centres Arthur’s mother Ygraine, his wife Guinevere, and the mortal Morgana – who really shouldn’t know magic but does. Women in the legends are pliant and good – but dangerous if they are powerful or can best men through sex or magic or riddles. Seen through women’s eyes, the rise of Arthur is rather less wonderful.
The jolly Boys Own adventure is reframed – after all in the earlier tales Arthur is a child of rape by deception, there is incest in the family, his wife betrays him with one of his best friends – so called ‘honour killings’ political marriages, and butchery are all part of it. We are not spared this grief and danger, and it lets us question the peace the golden age of Logres, supposedly, brings.
In the end heroic sacrifice is needed to give hope.
Arthur is a British creation myth, the English take it as an English one, although its roots are many. Let the right king rule and everyone is loyal and all will be well – draw the magic sword from the stone. Things were better in the old days. Stick to your place and toil for your Lord and die if he needs you. Cornwall, Wales, Scotland are best when they bow the knee. A woman’s place is to serve and to breed. Above all, when times are hard, it is faith in the old king under the hill who can come again, we need the old stories rising to reassert their world, that will save us. The one chosen by unseen powers. Not us, the common folk, thinking new stories for ourselves.
Myths are stories whose emotional truth does not rely on their literal truth. Arthur is not one figure but many interpretations – he is interpretation all the way down.
The Cleaving is a new myth, which does not place its faith in princes. Alas, they have plenty of faith in themselves.
McKenna tells a cracking tale and Nimue in particular is a character for our times.
I received a copy of this book from the author in return for a fair and impartial review.
Taking Voter ID to cast your vote will be required at May local elections, byelections, and from October 2023, any general election. (It DOES NOT change postal voting.)
Do not lose your vote by not having suitable photo ID. The following is on the electoral commission website which also explains registering to vote, getting a postal vote, voting by proxy and lots of other cool stuff. You can get something called a Voter Authority Certificate which is a new free(ish) photo ID. (Not wholly free as you need photos) Again details on the website.
“Accepted forms of photo ID
You can use any of the following accepted forms of photo ID when voting at a polling station.
Passport issued by the UK, any of the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, a British Overseas Territory, an EEA state or a Commonwealth country
Driving and Parking
Driving licence issued by the UK, any of the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, or an EEA state (this includes a provisional driving licence)
A Blue Badge
Older Person’s Bus Pass
Disabled Person’s Bus Pass
Oyster 60+ Card
Scottish National Entitlement Card
60 and Over Welsh Concessionary Travel Card
Disabled Person’s Welsh Concessionary Travel Card
Senior SmartPass issued in Northern Ireland
Registered Blind SmartPass or Blind Person’s SmartPass issued in
War Disablement SmartPass issued in Northern Ireland
60+ SmartPass issued in Northern Ireland
Half Fare SmartPass issued in Northern Ireland
Proof of age
Identity card bearing the Proof of Age Standards Scheme hologram (a PASS card)
Other government issued documents
Biometric immigration document
Ministry of Defence Form 90 (Defence Identity Card)
National identity card issued by an EEA state
Electoral Identity Card issued in Northern Ireland
Voter Authority Certificate
Anonymous Elector’s Document
You will only need to show one form of photo ID. It needs to be the original version and not a photocopy.”
This post is NOT to debate the law. I have major concerns about it, and in particular the fact some groups will find it much easier to have rfelevant ID already. Whatever you think of the law, do not be deprived of your vote. And remember, postal voting is not changing and IMHO is a brilliant idea anyway.
Gareth Powell’s About Writing leaps into the recommended list for anyone thinking about writing a book, or if more experienced, wanting to check their own thinking about doing so. While obviously written by someone who specialises in SFF/horror, it is definitely broad enough to be widely useful, and includes notes on other genres.
The book has the warm, passionate, and pragmatic approach that Powell embodies in his online persona. It mixes short pithy challenges with longer, well argued chapters.
If I was looking for a credible book on how to write novels, I’d expect the following.
The person who wrote it has actually written several successful novels (or shepherded many books to success as editor or agent.)
They have had enough experience of self-publishing and traditional publishing to talk sense about both, and hybrid forms too.
In setting out how they write, they explain why, and they don’t assert that is the only way to do it. (Since, empirically, many highly successful authors write in very different ways).
It should touch on all the challenges of starting and finishing that first book, and also, what comes after.
About Writing does all this and more, and it is hard to fault.
Powell talks about the different bits of being an author. How ideas come, how creativity can be nurtured, how to unlock yourself when stuck. And also the discipline and hard work needed to finish the draft and go on to make the book as good as it can be. Writers must soar to the stars with empathy and imagination then have the hard intellectual work figuring out how to restructure or reframe the vision to make better sense or take fewer words.
A book about writing needs to look at the whole picture. Powell is realistic but not defeatist about the financial challenges of writing and he talks about the business side. There is the vexed issue of promotion and having a public side.
Powell is sound on the personal. Writing books is a mental marathon and you need to look after yourself – the need to stay well read, to look after body and mind, to keep up connectivity offline with your friends and family. But also he’s right that’s there is joy, community and friendship to be found in the writing world.
Finally, Powell gives us a manifesto, a case for creativity and writing stories as a great social good – a case for trying to be optimistic as a means to create a better future – and I love his parable that the Ugly Ducklings just need to get together and be who they are. Swans, nah.